"Surf. Eat. Sleep" is the motto of the seven-room Nomads Hotel in San Clemente, but owner Sean Rowland is feeling anything but relaxed.
The week before Memorial Day three clients canceled reservations.
They didn't say why, but Rowland thinks he knows. He says news about sightings of great white sharks in local waters, and an April 29 attack on a swimmer at nearby San Onofre Beach, are scaring his customers.
"The hype is out of control," he said. "I don't think people understand the ramifications it can have on local businesses...I've never had that many cancellations in one week."
Neither government agencies nor industry groups have overall statistics on how tourism may have been affected by a recent, unusual influx of sharks -- some as long as 12 feet -- along Orange County's 42-mile coast.
And, so far, the effects don't go beyond the anecdotal. At hotels in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point, revenue is up in the first quarter of this year compared to a year earlier, according to hospitality consultants and city tourism officials.
But shark sightings from San Onofre to Long Beach jumped in April, and publicity about sharks grew even louder after the April 29 incident. Now, a few coastal businesses are seeing a shark effect, whether at a small hotel such as Nomads, at surf schools with dwindling sign-ups, or, on the bright side, with whale watching tour operators now touting "Shark Safaris."
Swimming with sharks
Shark sightings have become routine in recent years. The San Onofre attack came 11 months after a shark mauled a woman training for a triathlon off the coast of Newport Beach. In 2014, a man was bitten while swimming near the Manhattan Beach Pier by a great white hooked on a fisherman's line. And during the same period, shark researchers have tracked unusual patterns of great whites staying in such places as Manhattan Beach and Surfside and San Onofre during periods of the year when they are usually in deeper waters.
If beach closures multiply, or another swimmer is attacked, the fallout could be significant. Tourism in Southern California is a major driver of the economy, and beach tourism -- from Malibu and Long Beach to San Clemente -- is a key component of that.
More than 48 million visitors came to Orange County last year, two-thirds of them for vacation or pleasure, while roughly 47.3 million tourists came to the city of Los Angeles, according to city officials. Tourism in Orange County accounts for an estimated 164,000 local jobs, and the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. links tourism and hospitality to more than 678,000 jobs.
In a survey by the Orange County Visitors Association, a third of vacationers cited "friends or relatives" as the primary draw. But among those mentioning specific attractions, beach and ocean activities, including water sports and fishing, ranked highest, cited by 14.2 percent. (Theme parks, including Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, were cited by 8 percent of vacationers, and 8.3 percent came to shop.)
With 10 miles of oceanfront, the longest expanse in the county, Huntington Beach attracted 51.9 percent of last year's beachgoers. About a quarter visited Newport Beach and a quarter visited Laguna Beach, according to the survey.
Like 'Jaws,' but with better jackets
In February, a viral video showed anglers on Huntington Beach's pier pulling up a 6-foot shark to the cheers of onlookers.
Fishing for great whites, a protected species, is illegal, but conservationists say some anglers still equip themselves with large hooks and chum the water in hopes of catching one.
At the downtown office of Visit Huntington Beach, Kelly Miller, the tourist group's CEO and president, was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt last week as he sat under a wall-mounted surfboard and rattled off reasons that visitors flock to Surf City USA, regardless of the shark warning signs that have dotted the beach in recent months.
"We offer the quintessential California beach experience," he said, scrolling through Instagrams that visitors post on SurfCityUSA.com. "World class resorts! An incredible pier! Surf culture! Seafood restaurants! Fire pits! S'mores! "
With a budget of $4 million a year from hotel room taxes, Kelly heads a staff of 12 tourist promoters. It has paid off: Over the past four months, room nights were up 15 percent at the city's 23 hotels compared to the same period last year. Revenue grew by 24 percent.
At the city's Waterfront Beach Resort, General Manager Paulette Fischer said the hotel was sold out over Memorial Day weekend and bookings are up 7 percent for this summer over last summer.
"We have had very few shark inquiries," she said. "The beaches are safe."
Scott O'Hanlon, the hotel's marketing director, decries the local television coverage. "The likelihood of encountering a shark is like winning the lottery off a scratcher," he said. "But they make it sound like everyone is a giant burger snack."
Surf schools, however, are feeling a pinch.
Bill Sharp, who runs HB Surf School, blames the publicity over sharks for an 80 percent drop in sign-ups over the past two years. Mary Hartman, owner of Girl in the Curl, said her business at Doheny State Beach has dropped by a quarter in recent weeks as shark sightings multiplied at nearby Capistrano Beach.
But she will continue to operate, she said, adding, "We're not going to do anything to jeopardize children, my staff or myself."
Other businesses find they can make money from sharks. In Dana Point, which dubs itself "Whale Watching Capital of the West," blue whale sightings have recently dwindled. Boat owners are mounting shark tours instead -- and they're selling out.
Dana Wharf manager Donna Kalez offers 29-passenger excursions, with tickets at $45 for adults, $29 for children. Sharks, she said, are "exciting."
Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari touts his "Shark Safaris" on 12-passenger Zodiac-style boats as offering "the closest opportunity of any Dana Point tour vessel to view the apex predators in their natural environment."
Some businesses are taking a light-hearted approach. Sunsets Bar & Grill at Capistrano Beach offers a new rum drink called the "Capistrano Shark Bite." The glass sports a rubber shark with a gummy fish in its mouth. And, as a lure to draw fans to Friday night's game against the Minnesota Twins, the Angels used the shark theme for its giveaway, offering fans a plush Rally Monkey wearing a shark outfit.
On Magnolia Street in Huntington Beach last week, Surfside Carpet Cleaning erected an 8-foot-tall fiberglass shark sporting a bloody surfboard with the slogan "We remove blood."
"Everybody is thinking about sharks," said owner Laurie Fisser. "Rather than be freaked out, you have to have fun with it."
The mannequin, parked next to a company van, has brought in five new cleaning jobs, she said.
At the San Clemente headquarters of Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit with 80 U.S. chapters, CEO Chad Nelsen said the proliferation of drones and Go-Pro cameras, which allow both officials and ordinary beachgoers to better survey and photograph sharks, has fed news reports and social media.
"Ten years ago, if you saw a great white, you might tell 15 friends," he said. "Now you post a video and the whole world knows."
A recent video of Orange County sheriffs in a helicopter ordering beachgoers out of the surf as sharks swam nearby "was like a scene out of 'Jaws,' " he added.
Nelsen wrote his Ph.D. thesis at UCLA on surfonomics, or the economic footprint of surfing. He found that in 2006, Trestles alone generated 330,000 trips in a year with surfers spending $8 million to $13 million at local businesses.
As for shark impacts, researchers say great whites normally stay in one spot for about 40 days, he noted, adding hopefully, "Orange County's 'sharkmania' could soon be ancient history."
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